Monday, September 24, 2012

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantle

I finally finished a book!

Hurray, huzzah, woot!

I won't tell you how long it took me to read this book because its pathetic and awful, but lets just say the library was sending me harassing letters claiming I owed them many dollars because the book was now categorized as "LOST"! But I stayed strong and refused to return the book until I was finished because my determination knows no bounds. (And because my small town library has no late fees, God only knows why because they'd clearly make a fortune off me!)

But now to actually talk about the book. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantle is a masterful telling of the life of Thomas Cromwell. It is a sympathetic look at one of history's most cunning political geniuses. How could a life of someone so notorious for ruthlessly bringing about Henry VIII's split with the Catholic Church, and subsequent takeover of much of the Church's wealth in England, not to mention the utter cultural upheaval that resulted from such a monumental decision, and of course those infamous beheadings of saints and inconvenient wives alike be portrayed sympathetically?

Mantle's writing is amazing in that it brings the reader into an intimacy with Cromwell that seems almost unbelievable. Her technical use of pronouns when referring Cromwell has the effect of making the reader almost a fly on the wall of Cromwell's life. And the seamless way she describes intricate political discussions within the plot makes the read an intriguing one instead of what could feel like a plodding political tome. All the while she paints a true picture of what England must have felt and looked like at such a historic turning point.

The crux of this novel, the first of a proposed trilogy, the second book Bring up the Bodies having been released this spring, is Cromwell's standoff with St. Thomas More. Cromwell surpasses More politically through the book, becoming Henry's most relied upon adviser and eventually taking More's previously held position. More stands with the Church and refuses to bend to the whim of Henry in his obsession to marry Anne Boleyn. But then More refuses to even sign the Act of Supremacy that would make Anne's children legal heirs to Henry which throws him directly into Cromwell's destructive path of conforming the aristocracy to Henry's plan to break with the Church. No one is left alone under Cromwell's goal of complete political support for Henry and thus More has to become an example.

Mantle does not treat More sympathetically. He is described as having faults; persecuting Protestants, being overly pious, and generally just being plain strange to stick with such a Church who has become abusive of its powers and privileges in society. But although Mantle describes More in such a way, More's steadfastness to the Church becomes such a striking contradiction to Cromwell's insatiable political climb that More's heroic stance seems more impactful to the reader.

I found it fascinating to think about a saint from this perspective; not being completely free from bad decisions, mistakes, sin. But then in the face of such persecution to stand with grace, perseverance, and courage. Obviously More gained heaven in the eyes of the Church, while Cromwell gained historical notoriety. Mantle herself has made public statements against the Church. She was quoted earlier this year in saying that the Church was no longer a place for respectable people. She's abandoned her childhood faith in the Church and maybe shares sympathy for Cromwell in his rejection of the Church as well. But although she has outwardly rejected the Church her writing contains a depth of understanding of the faith which is rare, as well as her characters exhibiting some staggering virtue. I always find it ironic to find poignant descriptions of faith written by the very authors who publicly denounce it. They may denounce the Church vocally, but there seems to be an inward pull towards the Truth that cannot be severed, and only shows itself in the author's writing.

Wolf Hall lives up to the critical accolades as an impressively written novel, but also shows a unique side to St. Thomas More and the conflict between Henry VIII and the Church. I always have been a nerd about this period in history so I appreciated a new and well-crafted take on the era, but in the category of historical fiction this book ranks near the top and I'll have to finish the trilogy!

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